DETROIT - Carmakers emerging from a savage crisis hope to lure drivers to electric cars in the coming years, but cost, range and safety considerations mean many are still cautious, holding back from predicting an early sales boom.
As automakers showcased gleaming, futuristic electric cars at the Detroit Auto Show this week -- some of which will be on the road in 2010 -- executives' views varied on how quickly and comprehensively the technology will be adopted. Many sounded a note of caution.
As the much-talked-about electric car revolution edges toward becoming a reality, safety is a key concern.
(Safety) is something that has got to be integrated in the design of new vehicles, said Patrick Oliva, corporate vice president in charge of research and sustainable development at French tire maker Michelin.
The manufacturer showcased its Active Wheel technology, which integrates a miniature traction engine and an electric suspension system in the wheel, at the Detroit show, on the futuristic Volage concept car made by Monaco-based electric sports car maker Venturi.
Oliva told Reuters in an interview that Active Wheel can improve the performance of electric cars, cutting out weight from the body of the vehicle and improving efficiency.
It's difficult to put an internal combustion engine in a wheel, but putting an electric vehicle in a wheel makes sense, said Oliva, explaining that it would cut friction and waste, and make the car lighter and more energy-efficient.
Gildo Pallanca Pastor, CEO of Venturi, which is pushing electric vehicle technology to its limits with the Fetish electric sports car and a project for an electric vehicle designed for Antarctica, also sees safety as a key issue.
We have to make sure that the technologies on the road are going to be safe technologies, friendly for the environment and not just cars that are painted green so we can say 'it's electric, it's fantastic,' he told Reuters this week.
We want to make sure that safety is the most important issue. And when you have such a big amount of energy in a vehicle, protection of the battery is the big issue.
The price of gasoline also will be a factor as low prices lessen the push for alternatives like electric, said Dave Champion, senior director for automotive testing at Consumer Reports magazine. It's going to be a tough sell on electric vehicles, he said.
And how will consumers react?
Certainly, there's risk that the consumer doesn't respond in the same sense that everyone's expecting, J.D. Power and Associates analyst Jeff Schuster said.
IHS Global Insight analyst Rebecca Lindland said governments are the ones pushing hybrid and electric technologies. I do think we need to be careful that we're not being overly aggressive because the consumer has not chosen those vehicles yet, she told Reuters Insider.
Dealership AutoNation's COO, Mike Maroone, said cost could also be a major factor in holding back wide-scale adoption of the fledgling technology.
I'm excited about it. Is it ever going to be 15, 20 percent of our business? I don't think so until the price-value story gets put together. You can't build a price-value story today in electric.
Automakers are relying heavily on government cash to make early electric vehicles accessible in price to drivers.
Japan's Toyota Motor Corp, which as the maker of the best-selling Prius is betting firmly on hybrids, sees range also limiting electric cars to urban areas in the short term.
Small, commuter-type EVs could be accepted in limited areas, such as big and old cities in Europe and metropolitan areas in Japan relatively soon, depending on energy prices, said managing officer Koei Saga. If we forget about battery life, it is possible to produce EVs that have much longer mileage.
Rival Nissan Motor Co with French alliance partner Renault is meanwhile investing 4 billion euros in its bid to win the electric car crown.
VARYING MARKET FORECASTS
We know that we are not the leader in hybrid, but we intend to be the one in electric vehicles, said Nissan executive vice president for North America, Carlos Tavares. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has said he expects 10 percent of new cars sold by 2020 to be electric.
While others have less bullish market forecasts, toughening emissions rules mean the industry thinks electric cars will be adopted, even if it takes time.
German carmakers, traditionally known for their large luxury cars, are vying for leadership of the electric car segment, although numbers are tiny for the moment, and may remain so for some time.
BMW, which showed the 1-series-based ActiveE electric concept car on its gleaming stand, sees electric vehicles accounting for 5-15 percent of new car sales by 2020, a proportion that would be reflected in its own sales too, its head of R&D, Klaus Draeger, said.
Ulrich Hackenberg, head of R&D for Europe's biggest carmaker Volkswagen, said carmakers across the world are in the starting phase.
His forecast for electric cars is much less optimistic than BMW's: In 2020 we expect 1.5-2.0 percent of worldwide car sales to be electric cars, and also of our car sales.
U.S. carmakers, battling to shake off their reputation as makers of enormous gas-guzzlers, showed off greener, cleaner models, like General Motors' Chevrolet Spark, on their home turf of Detroit this week. For the second year in a row, the show boasted a test track for hybrid and electric vehicles.
Ford meanwhile, unveiled a big investment in electric technology.
(Electric vehicles are) a component of getting us where we need to be as an industry in terms of new CAFE standards, said Jeff Schuster, executive director of global forecasting at J.D. Power and Associates.
It's more buzz than reality right now ... but the industry is moving that direction, he said.